Schools Working To Save Programs

Technical, job training programs put kids on career track, but suffer repeated budget cuts

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As they went down the line, every student in Payson High School’s advanced culinary arts class listed what they planned to do after high school. Most said they would open their own restaurants or bakeries; others would go to medical school or join the military. Only one student said he didn’t know what he would do after school.

Looking for proof Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses work? This is it, said Gila County Schools Superintendent Linda O’Dell at the Feb. 17 Business Buzz luncheon, which the students catered.

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Linda O’Dell

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Casey O’Brien Superintendent

“It is great to hear you are all thinking beyond high school — good luck,” she said.

Years ago, students like this would not have had an opportunity to explore their culinary dreams. If students wanted to learn a skill, they took the only thing offered — shop.

As a result, students didn’t have as many opportunities to earn college credit or develop specific job skills. Today, students still take the traditional classes, but they can also take work-related courses. These classes give students like senior Leticia Martinez a head start at culinary school and more importantly gives her a direction in life.

But CTE courses are feeling the pinch of state and federal cuts.

Like all state education programs, vocational courses will lose funding this year as the state grapples with a massive budget deficit. Many school officials predict sizeable reductions.

Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) spends about $10,000 on each student who completes a program with 1,200 students enrolled in courses around the state.

In Payson, the Payson Unified School District, NAVIT and Gila Community College collaborate to offer career and technical classes, but all three institutes face deficits in the next fiscal year.

In November, NAVIT lost $500,000 from its soft capital fund on top of a 30 percent staff reduction last year, said Mike Weber, superintendent of NAVIT. For the last six years, NAVIT has operated at 91 percent its budget capacity.

“These types of cuts are felt everywhere in education,” Weber said. “We are all having to tighten our belts.”

At the PUSD, the district faces $800,000 in lost funding for fiscal year 2012 due to state cuts, a loss of 100 students and the end of federal stimulus funds. This is on top of a $1.2 million cut from last year’s budget.

Payson has already decided to close Frontier Elementary School and will likely lay off teachers. That means class sizes will increase.

PUSD Superintendent Casey O’Brien, also speaking at the Business Buzz luncheon, predicted class sizes will end up comparable to those in the Valley or Tucson. His only reassurance is that the district will keep the best teachers.

But these dismal numbers are nothing new. Since 2008, the state has cut $600 million from schools and Gov. Jan Brewer is proposing another $80 million in cuts next year.

“We don’t have a secure budget,” O’Brien said.

Although the district has had to cut a lot, O’Brien said he is excited about several programs that are thriving on grant funds.

“There is some momentum out there,” he said.

Programs include a new solar project, a high-tech veterinarian program in the recently built agricultural building, building trades classes transitioning into “green” programs and a $1.1 million grant to expand the district’s physical education program.

“Our vocational programs are thriving,” O’Brien said.

For the solar project, which is funded by an innovation grant, students will build a solar water heater and present the project to other schools.

Next year, the program will expand to further green energy sources, like wind.

O’Brien said it is critical students learn trades that are relevant and going green is the way of the future.

Online “virtual” schools are also part of that future. The PUSD recently applied for a virtual school program for seventh- through 12th-grades.

One day, O’Brien envisions the district incorporating in-person and online courses in every student’s curriculum.

“The online quality content is increasing dramatically,” he said, “and it is becoming more interactive.”

Instead of students opening up a lesson or book online and just reading the material, students can watch an expert give a lesson in their field and simultaneously ask a teacher questions about the material.

“Kids are coming to school today with more computer power in their pocket,” he said pointing to his cell phone. “These kids are digital natives and this is how they want to learn.”

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